Part of the fun of college football is looking ahead to next season.
Well UCLA fans, perhaps it’s time to avert your eyes.
Despite all the positive inertia developed in Rick Neuheisel: Year 2 – a 7-6 record including an EagleBank Bowl win after the 4-8 mockery that was last season – the Bruins are lined up for a difficult 2010.
Of UCLA’s 11 All-Pac-10 selections, just five return, including only three who were named to the first or second teams – sophomore safety Rahim Moore, junior kicker Kai Forbath and freshman punter Jeff Locke.
Goodbye, Reggie Carter and Alterraun Verner. So long, Brian Price and Korey Bosworth. Sayonara, Terrence Austin and Xavier Su’a-Filo.
“It’s going to be a definite challenge to get all those guys replaced and to play the same kind of consistent defense and even try to improve,” UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel said. “That’s going to be a tall order. We’ll have to do a great job in the offseason of not only evaluating our talent but our scheme.”
As any football mind will tell you, though, it’s not what they lose at the top that matters.
The Bruins lose five defensive starters to graduation – linebackers Carter and Kyle Bosworth, defensive linemen Korey Bosworth and Jerzy Siewierski and cornerback Verner – and brick-wall defensive tackle Price announced after the bowl win that he’d declare for the NFL Draft a year early.
Now UCLA is charged with rebuilding the nation’s No. 39 defense, a unit that held Temple to only 41 second-half yards in the EagleBank Bowl.
“That’s the beauty of college football – that there are those transitions,” Neuheisel said. “Where young guys become old guys and followers become leaders. That’s all healthy. We have guys there who are very equipped to take that next step.”
The interior defensive line is certainly hit the hardest by attrition, as only junior David Carter returns with extensive playing time. The Bruins have junior Andy Keane and sophomore Justin Edison waiting in the wings, with two verbal commitments in Bellevue (Wash.) High’s Julious Moore and Fresno Edison’s Wesley Flowers. They hope to land a major defensive tackle who can play immediately, such as Brighton (Utah) High’s Ricky Heimuli. Freshmen Iuta Tepa, Keenan Graham and Damien Holmes will likely compete for the defensive end spot opposite Datone Jones.
At linebacker, sophomore Akeem Ayers will return to lead the defense, but UCLA’s other two spots are up for grabs between sophomores Steve Sloan and Sean Westgate and freshman Patrick Larimore. The Bruins have verbal commitments from Woodberry Forrest (Va.) High’s Aramide Olaniyan and Fresno Hoover’s Eric Kendricks and are making a major push for Crenshaw’s Hayes Pullard.
With Moore and his nation-leading 10 interceptions returning at safety, the defensive backfield will be UCLA’s biggest defensive strength. Freshmen cornerbacks Sheldon Price, Aaron Hester and Andrew Abbott return at cornerback – with a big verbal commit in Los Alamitos’ Shaquille Richardson on the way – and sophomores Tony Dye and Glenn Love will again duke it out for the other safety spot.
“I know we were inexperienced at some positions and we have to address that,” Neuheisel said. “We have to make sure we have the necessary skill to play the scheme we’re playing. That’s a standard answer – but you just have to make sure you’re being prudent.”
As the defense sags, however, the Bruins hope the commitment to youth they’ve made in 2009 will pay dividends.
Though the team loses running back Chane Moline, tight ends Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya and receiver/returner Terrence Austin – who moved into second place on UCLA’s all-time all-purpose yardage list – every unit returns key starters.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince will be back along with freshman Richard Brehaut and the nation’s No. 20 recruit in Monte Vista’s Brett Nottingham. The running game returns sophomore Derrick Coleman and freshmen Johnathan Franklin, Milton Knox and Damien Thigpen, with two huge verbal commitments from Oaks Christian’s Malcolm Jones and Corona’s Jordon James.
With sophomores Nelson Rosario, Taylor Embree and Antwon Moutra back and the expected ascension of freshmen Randall Carroll, Morrell Presley, Jerry Johnson and Ricky Marvray – plus the addition of Serra’s Paul Richardson, a verbal commit – the receiving corps appears to be in sure hands.
Though the loss of All-Pac-10 honorable mention Xavier Su’a-Filo to his LDS mission leaves a gaping hole at left tackle, the offensive line returns with 60 combined starts and four starters in tackle Mike Harris, guards Jeff Baca and Eddie Williams and center Kai Maiava. Add verbal commitments from guard Chris Ward of Mater Dei, the No. 4 guard in the country by Scout.com, and Saguaro (Ariz.) High tackle Kody Innes, and the line should be in good shape.
“The torch really needs to be passed – the defense in essence has carried the team for a couple years, made sure they were the rock, the more solid consistent side of the ball,” Neuheisel said. “Hopefully as we enter next year and have some experience under our belts, the offense can return the favor.”
But then there’s that schedule…
UCLA’s non-conference tilt next season ranks up there with the most challenging in the country, as the tried-and-true theory of scheduling patsies to build the resume just wasn’t put into action. There’s the Week 1 road test at Kansas State, which, after consecutive 5-7 seasons, moved back to .500 with the rejuvenated Bill Snyder. There’s the home game with Houston, 36-18 over the last four years with five straight bowl appearances, a 10-4 record in 2009 and the top returning quarterback in the country in Case Keenum, who threw for 5,671 yards and 44 scores.
And then there’s that visit to pesky upstart Texas, who just might win the national championship this season.
“You know what, I’ve known all along that UCLA is the type of school that wants to be aggressive with scheduling,” Neuheisel said. “It’s part of who we are, it’s what we’ve been about. I don’t spend any time worrying about it. But it isn’t the best way to pave your way toward instant success. It’s not the formula that many teams use.”